Hamilton needs to get serious about worsening heat waves
The steel city could become one of the hottest in Ontario, but improving our heat response and investing in innovative approaches could change that
And the consequences of Hamilton’s searing heat waves are only further magnified for residents downtown. Thanks to a phenomenon known as the urban heat island effect, cities that lack natural landscapes and greenery and are instead replete with pavement, buildings and other surfaces, have the ability to absorb and trap heat. As urban areas become much hotter than surrounding rural areas, energy costs and pollution levels rise and heat-related illnesses take a toll on health and emergency services.
For the city of Hamilton, heat waves are expected to become more frequent and severe in the coming years. In fact, experts predict Hamilton could become one of the hottest cities in Ontario — but it is not too late to change that.
MacChangers program lead, Selena Esteves, explained that this is a critical time for the city and its climate.
“We are currently in a period that matters a lot for what comes next in Hamilton’s climate and how the city experiences [heat],” said Esteves.
Currently, Hamilton’s infrastructure and built environment is not designed to support the diverse needs of community members, especially given the consequences of the UHI effect. Urban areas are not only prone to becoming much warmer on hot days, but also suffer from poorer air and water quality, posing even greater health risks for Hamilton residents. Esteves has been researching these issues with the MacChangers program.
“The way that our city is built becomes very dangerous for people who might experience things like heat exhaustion. There’s a large elderly population in Hamilton, a large homeless population and there are very many people who are at risk of extreme heat illness,” explained Esteves.
So far, Hamilton’s response to the heat waves has involved the implementation of cooling centres across the city. However, these spaces aren't always accessible to everyone who needs them. Transportation, stigma and restrictions on what individuals can bring to these centres pose obstacles for various groups including community members who are unhoused, elderly or have a disability.
With more than one in 10 Hamilton residents living below the poverty line, it’s abundantly clear that there needs to be an equitable approach to the city’s heat response.
Amid worsening heat waves, it is crucial for Hamilton to adopt an adequate temperature bylaw to ensure all tenants are provided with access to air conditioning in their homes.
While a minimum temperature bylaw is in effect throughout Ontario and requires landlords to maintain a temperature of 20 degrees or higher in households, there is no bylaw to prevent dwellings from overheating. Without such a bylaw, Hamilton residents lacking access to cooling units or who are unable to afford energy costs associated with cooling will continue to be threatened by heat waves.
As we continue to provide resources to prevent heat-related illnesses, we also need to look to long-term solutions that reduce the UHI effect. Investing in more land cover and green infrastructure in downtown Hamilton with innovative approaches such as green and cool roofs could help protect the city’s future.
Hamilton’s distressing future may have been forecasted by experts, but it is up to us to rewrite that future and evolve as resilient, sustainable, and inclusive communities.